I thought I was in solid shape until I tried to keep up with Conrad Anker, one of the best climbers in the world, on a short hike through the snowy trails of Hyalite Canyon, a beautiful gorge located just outside of Bozeman, Montana. Conrad floats over the ground, while I merely stumble. He can carry on a conversation while walking uphill faster than anyone I’ve seen, yet his humility and kindness are some of the first things you notice when you meet him. Conrad, a North Face athlete who has claimed first ascents on multiple continents, took time out of his busy travel, climbing, and speaking schedule to spend last week in Hyalite teaching a group of 11 military veterans—some who had never touched an axe or put on crampons before —to climb ice. Throughout the week, his grace, precision and unmatched energy inspired and amazed each member of the Veterans Expeditions group and helped everyone to push harder.
Conrad took a quick break from the group to chat with me about his work with Veterans Expeditions and his plans for the future.
Chris Kassar: You’re Conrad Anker–one of the premier alpinists in the world. You go on expeditions all over the world with some of the best climbers around. What motivated you to volunteer some of your time to work with Veterans Expeditions?
Conrad Anker: They’ve gone through a life-changing thing. They had to kill people and see people get killed. They had to see death in a very different way than I do as a mountain climber. Teaching them to climb is a little way for me to give something back. You read about the suicide rate, drug addiction, alcoholism, abuse, and the divorce rate … all that stuff. It’s a tough lot for these guys coming back. They’re young and even though no one’s hating them like they did the Vietnam vets, it’s still hard. They’ve been out of the game for eight years or 12 years while everyone else has been in the game, improving their skills, and becoming more marketable. So, to get these guys out here, they get self-confidence and they get to be with their band of brothers again. I think for these guys, it’s really important that they have that.
C.K.: What do you get out of it?
C.A.: I get a charge out of it. It’s good to just come out here and play fort and have a big campfire and see everyone work out and climb hard. And, of course it’s really rewarding to hear their stories. You know, ice climbing and mountaineering, they’re a different type of sport and aren’t for everyone–but for these guys, they’re probably pretty good. Just being outside is soothing. You come back, you’re happy and your calm … I mean if you’re really angry go outdoors and go for an eight-mile hike. When you come back, you won’t have any energy to do anything, nonetheless something violent!
C.K.: When you first addressed the group a couple days ago, you said that climbing is great because of the teamwork it creates. Can you expand on this idea?
C.A.: In many sports, the adversary is another group of people so it becomes an “us against them” kind of thing, but in climbing, it’s us–as a team–working to achieve a common goal–not to beat someone else. The adversaries are nature, cold weather, giardia, the sun, and the wind, not other people. So, climbing helps cultivate teamwork and for veterans specifically, it puts them back in that teamwork mode without pitting them against others.
CK: What similarities do you see between the military community and the climbing community?
C.A.: We’re all about structure and discipline, and we have an unwritten hierarchy in climbing, so I think there’s a really similar value system between climbers and the military.
But also, part of the reason I’m up here is that I feel for these guys and what and who they’ve lost. We–in the climbing community, me included–have lost people, too … it’s just been in a different line of duty. And, it’s tough. You see some of the wristbands these guys wear to remember their fallen buddies, and you realize they must have been pretty close to warrant wearing wristbands that memorialize them. It wasn’t an abstract thing like it wasn’t just someone not returning from a mission …. They must have been close and they might have even died in their arms or something. That’s pretty heavy.
We need to find a way to get these guys back into life, and I think outdoor recreation is a good route. The outdoor industry is growing and military vets have skills that translate here. They were trained to be outdoors, and if there’s a way to get them outside and thriving and build that component of the industry, it could work pretty well.
C.K.: What do you hope to accomplish by working with Veterans Expeditions?
C.A.: If people see me giving back to the military, they’ll hopefully follow suit and be good to these guys who have done so much. I’m not Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods–I’m just an old, gray-beard mountain climber, but I’m hoping to inspire people to follow my way. And, I think, the value set we have in climbing–communication, trust, independence, and teamwork—is pretty damn relevant no matter what you do in life, so I hope to pass that on to these guys.
C.K.: What have you seen happen out here this week between the group?
C.A.: For me, it’s difficult because I only see a snapshot. I don’t see the before and after so I have no idea what these people’s lives are like. But, while I’m in the moment, I just have to make sure the candle is lit and the spark is there so they’re like, “Yeah, let’s rally!” I want them to leave and be happy they were out here. I have seen enormous teamwork and I think for everyone it’s pretty transformative in one way or another.
And, whether or not getting outside is something they continually do or it’s just something they just work through right now–it has some cathartic value and there is a benefit because you’re just more alive when you’re out here. I mean, grizzly bears live out here …. You guys heard coyotes or wolves howling last night and everyone’s talking about it … that doesn’t happen in a hotel room.
C.K.: What’s next for you and Veterans Expeditions?
C.A.: They want to make the Hyalite trip happen every year so we’ll plan another one here in Hyalite for sure. And, in 2014, we’d like to do a trip to Nepal in conjunction with the Khumbu Climbing School. I picture bringing together 100 soldiers from all over the world, from as many nations as possible and having a training or just an epic, fun trip.
C.K.: What’s next for you on Everest?
C.A.: No. I’m done with Everest. I did it three times, and I need to be good at that and be happy with it and focus on other climbs. The first one was discovery [of George Mallory’s body], the second one was the Second Steppe, and the third one was without oxygen so it was a good progression. The resources that would go to getting me on the summit need to go to some young one. Plus, there are so many other climbs out there I want to do
C.K.: Do you feel you have responsibility as a public figure to be an activist and to speak out on issues?
C.A.: Yes, I do and that’s why I’m here this week so people will become more aware about what these veterans, these guys who served face when they come home. That’s also why I speak out on climate change. As a mountaineer, you see it–drier snow years, less glaciers more dust storms …. People have to wake up about that because this is not opinion, it’s fact.